The Three Kingdoms return to war again, but has this age old conflict run out of carnage? The Finger Guns Review of Dynasty Warriors 9 Empires.
One of the easiest insults to hurl at a long-running series like Dynasty Warriors is that it’s overly repetitive with little to no innovation present between installments. Indeed, whether it be Assassin’s Creed, Call of Duty or FIFA, it’s become almost an adage used to beat them with. Clearly, there’s some value in sticking to a formula, as you’ll maintain the player base that returns consistently for the same experience. However, lack of innovation and creativity can severely hinder multiple sequels’ appeal over time, especially if the original concoction is repetitive from its inception.
The release of Dynasty Warriors 9 plummeted straight into the territory of lackluster innovation. A new open world approach was met with concessions to unique characters move sets, lack of mission variety and negative reception. Empires versions have always been, shall we say, identical in their design, but 9’s offering is basic at best and phoned-in at worst. The strategy systems are bare-bones, mission types are non-existent and there’s little tangible satisfaction from playing this entry.
I like Dynasty Warriors, as demonstrated by my unfortunate 180 hours on Dynasty Warriors 8: Extreme Legends. But even my defence of its button-mashing action has its limits, with Dynasty Warriors 9 Empires pushing beyond said limits in less than 5 hours.
Standing On The Shoulders of Mediocrity
As is standard for Dynasty Warriors titles at this point, you’ll instantly be met with the same menu options as previous entries. The only mode on offer in 9 Empires is conquest – there’s no free-play or single battle options. A brief triple tutorial can get you up to speed if you’ve never tried a Musou game previously, but if you’ve played any DW game before you won’t need it. I actually felt a bit stupid for doing it considering I’ve blasted a couple of these games before.
Conquest is built to be a more strategic, tactical offering of the typical button-mashing action of the regular DW games. There’s a handful of scenarios (that you’ll have played dozens of times before in every other entry…) you can pick from which offer various starting setups for factions, territories and officer allocations. In theory, it should offer plenty of variety to shape your dicing carnage through thousands of fodder foes. In practice, they all play in exactly the same fashion. One campaign of conquest is identical to any other, save for some surface level differences. It hardly inspires enthusiasm to want to jump in to each of them.
After completing one full campaign, I’d seen everything the game’s offering had about 3 times over. Cutscenes start to repeat within a quarter of a full conquest, your objectives will be rehashed dozens of times and you’ll sift through the same uninteresting menu options hundreds of times. It descends into a drab affair, where the interesting setup of a scenario quickly gets bogged down in the nothingness of the gameplay systems.
All The Menus Of The World
The “Strategic” element of Dynasty Warriors 9 Empires is a term I’d use… loosely. Instead of the curated campaigns with specific mission setups and objectives in main-line titles, here you’re tasked with conquering the kingdom in whatever means you see fit. There are a number of territories that require the negotiation of the sword to bring under your banner, uniting the land and ending the conflict (through the use of excessive conflict, naturally).
What this boils down to, is spending an inordinate amount of time sitting in the game’s central hub menu. From here, you’ll engage in various actions like gathering food, trading for coin, forging alliances, training officers, improving defences and sabotaging your opponents. It sounds like a really interesting concept, but its execution is so mind-numbingly basic it might as well just be a series of numbers on an excel spreadsheet.
Forging an alliance? Just send the officer with the highest number percentage. Sabotaging an enemy territory? Click a button and it just happens. Pillaging the land for resources? All happens in a moment. You don’t actually do any of the interesting things the menu suggests – you just click and see numbers or colours change. Each action you engage with will give you points towards certain traits like benevolent or commanding which provide you titles and new “secret plans”, but this has no tangible consequence. Should you max out “evilness” for example, nothing happens. Liu Bei won’t throw you out of his service, Lu Bu won’t appreciate your penchant for being an asshole on par with him, it’s just a gauge and a stat.
Which extends to interacting with other officers too. You can go on “strolls” with other characters, talking to them to increase your digital, numbered affection with them, but other than receiving random items from or pledging allegiance to them as a spouse or sworn sibling, there’s just no purpose to it. The strolls allow you to wander the open world, but it’s completely sparse and devoid of anything interesting to do, so I just simply never bothered, instead just sifting through the menu at an alarmingly efficient speed.
Each action will move your allocated amount of time forward to the next War Council, which will be every 6 months. One action equates to one month. In other games like XCOM or Phoenix Point, time is a precious and ultimately essential resource, where every decision on how to spend it will define your success or failure. In this game though, it just doesn’t have that same sense of impetus. Fail to complete your assigned objectives? No bother, you just lose a bit of XP. Miss an interaction with an officer? No sweat, you’ll have seen an identical one 12 times in that campaign already.
The lack of any real strategic depth wasn’t a shock to me having played 8’s Empires version, but it is sorely disappointing to feel like you’re navigating a sinking investment account instead of actually planning domination of the Three Kingdoms.
Every so often, you’ll be treated to an escape from the menu management cell to be let loose upon the battlefield. Skirmishes are one of two varieties: invading… or (you’ll never guess!)… defending. Incredibly, both function exactly the same, only with bases and starting locations swapped. As an assault force, you need to take over bases to spawn siege towers, rams or catapults which allow you entry to the castle. As the defender, you do the same thing – take over those exact same bases, only to prevent the invading force succeeding. Once you take control over enough bases, or dwindle the enemies resource counter, the opposing leader will spawn. Take them down, be declared the winner.
I’d love to report that there’s a variety of setups or a multitude of approaches to each skirmish. Alas, there are none. What I’ve described is your gameplay experience for the entire thing. There are secret plans you select before entering the fray, which boil down to ‘capture X bases’ or ‘defend these people’ which then gives you an advantage of some kind. You have to foil the opponents plan too, though it’s pretty difficult not to succeed, as most objectives will be what you’re doing in the fight anyway.
Regardless of invading or holding off the onslaught, Dynasty Warriors 9 Empires is laughably poorly balanced. As the only officer in your army with a brain cell, you’ll easily stomp to victories quicker than the in-game announcements can keep up. You’ll run to points on the map, mash a combo of your special attack, Musou special, the square and triangle buttons until the digits at the top go to 0, then hop on your horse to the next one. Combat is typically artificial and automated, as you simply charge through any resistance.
There’s a rock-paper-scissors idea for selecting your units class from one of 3, with each being stronger/weaker than another, but in action it really doesn’t matter. Playing on normal you can decimate larger, superior forces by making adequate use of your abilities and having an ounce of common sense. On harder difficulties you can abuse the mechanics to load up on specials before taking on officers who can actually be a threat. So much of the combat is recycled from previous entries it becomes even more tiresome than a Musou title already is, and that’s a bad look to say the least.
In fact, combat styles, secret plan objectives, unit types, enemy officers, maps and basically everything in the game is repurposed from older entries. I’ve only played Dynasty Warriors 6 & 8 and even I grew weary within just a handle of battles. It feels even more lazy and lacking in genuine effort in a series which has been almost renowned for this for years. It’s quite some feat.
All of these aforementioned issues pale in comparison to the ghastly performance of 9 Empires. It’s never been a series of stunning performance or fantastic graphical prowess, but damn is this entry rougher than a scouring pad. At one point I wondered if they’d accidentally placed a PS2 build of the game on a PS5 label and somehow let it slip through the net, so bad were the issues.
Should you venture out on a stroll in the open world, you’ll be met with horrendous screen-tearing and a landscape so barren it’s made the Nevada desert look positively bustling with life. Textures are non-existent in cutscenes for a good few seconds when one begins and when camera angles shift. There are loading screens aplenty as you navigate menus, with almost any action met with a period of waiting around.
When the action “heats up” and has more than a few dozen identical units on screen you’ll experience framerate drops so intense it would give a drum & bass crowd an orgasm. Object pop-in is abundant, animations are beyond wooden, cutscenes that have longer loading times than actual exposition, Dynasty Warriors 9 Empires runs embarrassingly bad considering it’s on next-gen hardware. I know the series isn’t the peak of innovation but even some effort would have been appreciated.
It certainly doesn’t help that so many assets, ideas, cutscenes and dialogues are endlessly repeated, begging the question of how the title runs so poorly when hardly making use of the majority of the hardware at its disposal.
The Dong Zhuo of Musou Games
The absolute pits of all of this however, is that somehow, some goddamn way, I still… STILL… had some fun playing this game. Despite all the problems, endlessly unengaging gameplay, nauseatingly boring menu management and horrendously poor performance, I still found myself jumping from battle to battle. Whether it be just that next kingdom to trash or another alliance to betray immediately after it ended, I couldn’t help but play it.
I should mention there’s a character creation tool and the ability to have a child at the end of a campaign if you’re married is present, for those who care. The most fun I had was playing as the computer-generated officer “BoB” whom was the love-child of Ma Chao and Sun Shang, which the game lovingly dressed up like something from a thrift shop, with tiger face paint. It was a thing of sadistic, grim beauty. All 94 Musou officers are included in the roster, should you care about every face being accounted for too.
I could never in good conscience recommend Dynasty Warriors 9 Empires to series vets never mind newcomers, but I can’t deny that for those, like me, who have enjoyed previous entries in spite of their issues… you’ll probably have something you’ll enjoy in this. I cannot for the life of me explain what it is, how it works or what messed up part of my mind allows me to be so willfully wasteful with my time. Alas, if you like Musou games, rest assured you’ll be getting more of the same formula, albeit with nothing added and likely even some elements stripped away. A once guilty treat now a tasteless, bland, unappetizing beverage which has you hooked forever more – bit like my relationship to Coca-Cola.
Even for a series renowned for reusing material and rehashing a tired formula of mindless yet oddly satisfying gameplay, Dynasty Warriors 9 Empires is a hollow package. If this is all the series has left to offer, it may be time to let the Three Kingdoms war themselves into oblivion. A bland, shallow title with little to offer even those who enjoy the repetition of Musou gameplay, Empires is as regurgitated as a game can be.
Dynasty Warriors 9 Empires is launching on February 15th 2022 on PlayStation 5 (review platform), PlayStation 4, Nintendo Switch, Xbox series X|S, Xbox One, PC via Steam and Stadia.
Developer: Omega Force
Publisher: Koei Tecmo
Disclaimer: In order to complete this review, we were provided with a promotional copy of the game. For our full review policy, please go here.
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